One of Susan O’Neill’s favourite quotes is by the late English philosophy guru Alan Watts: “You are under no obligation to be the same person you were 15 minutes ago.”
In the course of a two-hour interview last week, the singer-songwriter from Clare was many people, none of them dull.
She talks about her love of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s book Freedom from the Known in one breath, and about living in the spirit world in the next.
“Sometimes this world doesn’t feel real,” she says. “And when I dream it feels more like reality.
"It is a sensory experience which is very beautiful. It feels bizarre. But to me, this world definitely feels like a dream. I enjoy looking at it like that.”
For the last seven years, she’s documented her dreams – all of which are, she says, extremely vivid. To remember them, she meditates in the morning.
“There are dreams that are very powerful messages,” she says, “where your body is communicating something. There are dreams where you can travel. There are dreams where you can receive messages in a telepathic way. When people’s bodies are relaxed enough, communication can happen.
“When I wake up, having thought of someone, it is in some senses visiting them in a place where time and space are not active. But you don’t always go to that place when you dream.”
Asked about the deeper meanings she’s found in her inner explorations, she says: “Obviously to live in this physical reality we tell ourselves a certain number of things within a structured society. I am only interested in the possibilities out there which are quite limitless,” she says.
“I feel music is a conduit to understand and explore a deeper awareness of our existence.”
What was she like as a child?
“I can tell you what I think I was like. I think I was weird. When I look back, I was nurtured and loved for sure – but I always in my head set myself aside. I always rambled away on my own.”
She has a younger brother and sister, Eoin and Sharon.
“I played with them. But I would often ramble away and just hang out with trees down at the end of the road. There was a beautiful tree at the end of the road that was my friend. It was cut down to build houses. That was quite devastating. More than devastating.
"I actually went to visit it recently in Clare."
School was a prison to me, from the second I went in to the moment I left
You’d be reducing Susan O’Neill to a cliché to describe her as ethereal or otherworldly. She’s probably all those things, among others, but most of all the feted artist is unafraid to be free in her expression – be it in her music or her thoughts or her body.
She swims naked in the sea in Lahinch at night. She goes for walks barefoot. She sends messages by thought to horses. She spends long periods in silence in front of the sea and even longer periods in a dream-like state, in the non-physical world.
In that non-physical world, Susan found and recognised herself, as if in a mirror. She discusses it with a child-like wonder and innocence.
At one point she talks about a Ken Robinson Ted Talk ‘Does School Kill Kids’ Creativity?’
“He tells the story of the child that is painting God and the teacher comes up and says: ‘What are you painting?’ The child says: ‘I’m painting God’ and the teacher says: ‘No one knows what God looks like.’ So the child says: ‘Well, they will in a minute.’”
Born in Kilkenny, she moved to Dublin when she was one. Her parents Jim and Helen ran the golf club on Bull Island. Her mother was the chef, her father in charge of the golf course.
“We were the only inhabitants on the island,” she remembers. “I was looking for mischief wherever I could find it... getting into trouble, climbing walls, climbing curtains in the golf club. I often did things to distract my parents from their work.”
At the age of six, they moved to Clare. Her relationship with education was never a positive one.
“School was always like a prison to me, from the second I was brought in, to the moment I left,” she says. “I’m sure all of the teachers said: ‘She can’t concentrate. She’s away with the fairies. She’s a nice person, but what’s going to become of her?’”
Susan struggled to concentrate because her mind would be elsewhere. “I’d be dreaming, imagining as much as I could. I’d be painting pictures on the wall with the shadows and looking how the sun was coming in through the window with the light.
She was unhappy, she was misunderstood
"I’d be looking out the window as much as possible or breathing any kind of air that would come in.
"The words on the pages from the books I was supposed to be reading would be dancing around and I couldn’t concentrate.”
She was also unhappy. She saw school as a place that she had to attend every day for five hours.
“My parents said to me: ‘You kind of have to go.’ I knew I had to go. All the other kids were in there. There was no other option. It just felt wrong.”
She felt misunderstood.
"I did feel different. I felt like I didn’t belong. I did not have a sense of belonging, despite having friends.
"I appeared to be quite normal. There was a realness to it, too. I definitely laughed with people and had very real moments and I still have friends from school.
“But there were large parts of it that weren’t real. I was this gut-wrenching oddity and just felt just misplaced, in an institution where you’re wearing clothes that don’t fit and don’t feel nice, and are restrictive, and you have to learn about a chapter in history that doesn’t feel real, that’s written by the winning side.
"I think that’s where some of my pain comes from. The things I draw from – societal pressure.”
Despite a teacher telling her that she mightn’t pass her Leaving Cert and would have to repeat (“I’m not repeating! I’m done with here!” was her response), she got enough points to do music in Waterford in 2007.
She started playing gigs in every bar and pub in town in 2012 with a guitar and a loop pedal; playing stripped back acoustic versions of Paul Simon’s ‘Cathy’s Song’ and AC/DC’s ‘Shook Me All Night Long’. She also wrote her own songs, one of which was ‘Mrs Karma’.
“I found this snippet from my diary when I was 12 or 13: ‘Who do you think you are, Mr Man in charge?’”
She is honest enough to admit that she has made the wrong choices in life
“I was being sarcastic,” she explains. “I was talking about the apparent God, a man with brown hair and sandals. I was questioning it heavily and I wrote this song saying: ‘I’d like a word with you please.’”
She was imagining God with this filing system, taking all our prayers and considering them every day before deciding who is worth a prayer being answered.
“I was putting my money on there being a feminine karmic energy,” she says. “That was me trying to break the paradigm, because I was brought up in the church, going to mass on Sundays. I found it weird that someone would stand at the top of the church and have the answers.”
In 2017, she released her debut album Found Myself Lost. She toured the world, first with Sharon Shannon, then as a member of the King Kong Company, then as a solo artist. She toured Australia three times.
In fact she was Down Under when the pandemic broke out but got an emergency flight out and eventually got home to Ireland, where she lived in a hotel in Doolin for “months and months on my own”.
“I would ramble around Doolin, with my swimming togs on my bike and a flask of whiskey and a few snacks.
"There was no one around other than a few cows and a dog or two. I would cycle down to the pier and be there in complete silence – for days.”
Last year she brought out the album In the Game with Mick Flannery. Since then, she has toured the world again (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Canada, England) and has just released a glorious new EP, Now You See It.
“The title song is about trying to accept the chaos that we see going on around us in the world – chaos in a political sense that is almost too much to digest, and then trying to live your life, and feeling helpless,” she says referring to the war in Ukraine.
“There is another song called ‘Hear Us All’ about the idea that in some ways we’re all innocent but in other ways we need to consider what is foolish and what is a wise choice. “
She is honest enough to admit that she has made the wrong choices in life.
“But I value the notion that you can look at everything as a fortunate event where you can learn. I see it all as a living, breathing flow which all leads to where you are. And when something is over, I don’t feel it exists that much.
"But I understand that you really can’t live that way, because you look at what’s going on in the news and it draws you in. And then in another mind I like to think of passively living. Floating through existence is also a beautiful way to be...”
Last year she walked Croagh Patrick. Her feet were numb and bleeding
She lives (“as much as I can”) in Ennistymon. The day we spoke she was going horse riding. She communicates with the animals.
“I send the horse thoughts in advance: ‘Who is in the mood to dance today? We can send thoughts. Of course, It’s the same as praying for someone or sending positive thoughts.
"We often only do it when someone is unwell or in need of it, but there is always need. We all need to heal something.”
When have you needed to heal yourself?
“Always. Every day. I’ve had failed relationships. I’ve had relationships that have left scars for sure. But those are things that shape you.
"What’s the alternative? Not living? Not picking berries because you’ll get scrapes or a few nettle stings?”
Last year she walked Croagh Patrick. Her feet were numb and bleeding by the time she got down off the mountain. Her mother did the same barefoot pilgrimage in the summer of 1989, when she was pregnant with Susan – though she didn’t know she was pregnant at the time.
“She said she started in sandals, but they broke, and they didn’t make the journey.”
As for her own journey, she has a new solo album out next year as well as a tour of America. There are great expectations for her.
“I am aware that in this interview I could sound like… [there's a long pause] ...like I have no tether to the Earth at all,” she says.
We’ve been talking for two hours.
“I do have to live by a clock to a certain extent for my gigs,” she admits. “But when I am not on the clock, I live a very simple and practical life. My concept of time is not is not great. Sometimes I don’t know what day it is.”
So what day is it?
“Friday,” she laughs. “But yesterday I thought that it was Friday too.”
Susan O’Neill’s new EP ‘Now You See It’ is out now